- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Washington Nationals have been saying for weeks that the franchise’s relocation from Montreal won’t truly hit them until they take the field at RFK Stadium for their second home game.

Anyone can draw a large crowd on Opening Day, they said. The real test of a town’s support for baseball comes the next night.

So tonight’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks represents more than your average Saturday night at the ballpark. It marks the Nationals’ first chance to experience what a full season in Washington will be like.

“Fan support is over the course of a season, not one game,” manager Frank Robinson said following his club’s 5-3 win over the Diamondbacks on Thursday night before a sellout crowd of 45,596. “In Cleveland, we would have 55,000 people out there and 10,000 the next day. I think it is support when they come out game after game and support the team. So we will wait and see.”

The Nationals should be pleasantly surprised when they emerge from the dugout at RFK tonight. A crowd of about 33,000 is expected for Game 2 of 81 in the District, with a similar-sized turnout expected for tomorrow afternoon’s series finale.

For all those still aglow from the euphoria of the first home game, this figures to be the start of a beautiful friendship between ballplayers who have been begging for years for support and fans who have been begging for decades for a team they could support.

There was, without a doubt, a home-field advantage Thursday at RFK, whose bouncing bleachers and swaying upper deck caught many of the new Nationals players off guard. Once they realized what was going on, they couldn’t wait to get back out on the field.

“That’s the thing — this is going to be the norm,” center fielder Ryan Church said. “It’s something we can feed off of. It’s going to be a very, very special year.”

All the more special if Washington keeps up its surprisingly winning ways.

Thursday’s victory was the Nationals’ third in a row, propelling them into sole possession of first place in the National League East before last night. Few could have predicted such a successful start for a club that was pegged by every major baseball prognosticator to finish last in its division.

With 152 games remaining, there’s still plenty of time for the experts to be proven right. More than a few clubs over the years have stormed out of the gates only to find themselves out of contention long before the pennant races heat up.

Which explains why Robinson isn’t ready to declare this team a legitimate contender.

“It’s a long season,” he said. “Anytime you are in first place, no matter if it is the first day or 10 days into the season, it’s nice as long as you keep it in perspective and understand that we haven’t done anything yet. Really, we haven’t even scratched the surface. But it is better to be there than trying to play catch-up.”

Actually, the Nationals have proven quite adept at playing catch-up during the first two weeks. They trailed their opponent at some point in four of their six wins and were tied in another. Thursday’s game marked the only time so far they have opened up an early lead and held it.

Washington has managed to win these games in a variety of ways with contributions from a variety of players. Leadoff man Brad Wilkerson was the hero in Philadelphia, rapping out seven straight hits to lead the Nationals to two straight victories. He gave way in Florida and Atlanta to right fielder Jose Guillen, who quickly has become the team’s most feared clutch hitter and who led the majors with five home runs entering last night’s games.

Thursday night, the baton was picked up by a pair of veterans who have risen to the occasion before, third baseman Vinny Castilla and starting pitcher Livan Hernandez.

Castilla doubled, tripled and homered before losing a chance to hit for the cycle when he was plunked in the left shoulder by Arizona reliever Lance Cormier.

Hernandez, meanwhile, looked every bit like a legitimate ace, allowing just one infield hit to the Diamondbacks through eight innings before finally succumbing to a three-run homer in the ninth.

The overwhelming energy and emotion inside RFK certainly helped matters from the Nationals’ perspective.

The question now is whether there will be ample energy and emotion for the next six months to continue to stoke this team’s fire.

“This is a solid team,” reliever Joey Eischen said. “Y’all start following us, start pumping us up, because you’re going to be doing it all year. This ain’t the same as last year. This is a good, solid team that’s going to go out and do its job — this year.”

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